Eastland’s St. Francis Xavier Parish reaches milestone anniversary amidst pandemic
EASTLAND — The terms “tight-knit community” and “service minded” arise again and again when Father Vijaya “VJ” Mareedu, SAC, and others at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Eastland are asked about their parish and town.
“During my 20 years here, I’ve always found St. Francis a very welcoming church and everyone here very approachable,” parishioner Janie Ortiz said. “Fr. VJ knows us all and is always there for whatever we’re going through.”
Deacon Ed Ferguson, who has served the parish for about four years, shared similar sentiments in discussing the parish situated in the far-western reaches of the Diocese of Fort Worth.
“Eastland’s a very thriving, very close-knit community,” Dcn. Ferguson said. “It’s a community and parish of hard-working people who do a lot to reach out and help each other. It’s a parish and community of people walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.”
The Church is eternal, and the time to make a difference is now, Fr. Mareedu, the parish's parochial administrator, said. That said, he and others are excited that 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of St. Francis Xavier Parish. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic delayed a planned July 18 Mass to be concelebrated by Bishop Michael Olson followed by attendant celebrations. Such a turn of events, while unfortunate, also serves to emphasize the parish’s true purpose, Fr. Mareedu explained.
St. Francis Xavier traces its beginnings to the petroleum boom of the 1920s that saw the small town’s population grow from less than 1,000 in 1910 to roughly 10,000 by decade’s end. The town, also known as the birthplace of former University of Iowa head football coach Hayden Fry, remains small today with 3,960 residents, according to 2010 census numbers.
Eastland Catholics began attending Mass in the Eastland County Courthouse in 1920 with Father Rudolph Aloysius Gerken, pastor of St. Rita Parish in Ranger, celebrating.
Former State Legislator Charles Ulrich Connellee, known as the “Father of Eastland,” bought and surveyed 320 acres in 1875 of what became Eastland and played a pivotal role in establishing the town as Eastland County’s seat, according to the Handbook of Texas Online. Connellee, during Eastland’s building boom of the 1920s, also donated the land on which St. Francis Xavier now sits. Fr. Gerken oversaw construction and furnishing of the church in 1923 and concelebrated Mass at the new parish later that same year with Diocese of Dallas Bishop Joseph P. Lynch.
A simple, white wooden building with a cross atop its steeple, the original church still stands, holding 20 pews and seating for 125. Renovations through the years added side altars, a parish hall, a rectory, a building for classrooms, and a grotto donated by parishioners in 2015 dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“Still having, essentially, the original building is a source of pride to our parishioners,” Fr. Mareedu said.
It’s a miracle of sorts that the church remains.
“Eastland is a very small church and there were doubts at one point and thoughts of combining the parish with Cisco or Ranger,” Fr. Mareedu said. “But God had other plans.”
Though the church has remained small, its vibrant majority-Hispanic congregation is big in heart, Dcn. Ferguson said, adding that parishioners are very active.
“They’re big on youth and family,” he said. “Age-wise, it’s a young parish with lots of families and children that will make it a thriving parish for years to come.”
Fr. Mareedu and Dcn. Ferguson both said they prefer small-town parish life and its opportunities to better know and interact with parishioners. Both also serve at St. Rita Parish in Ranger, St. John Parish in Strawn, and Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish in Cisco.
“The only thing is I’m grateful to God and I believe any appointment comes from Him,” Fr. Mareedu said when asked his thoughts on being part of the line of priests who have served at St. Francis Xavier. “I really enjoy serving this parish and want to do my best to help as best I can. I am grateful to God every day of my life for placing me in the Diocese of Fort Worth.”
Fr. Mareedu joked that he barely knew a word of Spanish when he came to St. Francis Xavier — the parish’s Masses are in Spanish — but picked it up pretty quick.
For now, the focus is on keeping healthy during the pandemic more than on anniversaries, Fr. Mareedu said. To those ends livestreaming and social distancing remain the order of the day.
“As a small community, we know and care for each other and can respond effectively to our brothers and sisters in need,” Fr. Mareedu said.
In addition to keeping in touch with parishioners, church staff and volunteers have donated groceries and rosaries to those in need and made face masks to donate to area first responders and medical workers.
Such caring goes both ways.
“We even received donations of plants for our garden area during this time,” Fr. Mareedu said. “What a blessing that was!”
Rest assured, St. Francis Xavier’s first century will not go uncelebrated, Fr. Mareedu said.
“If not this year, next year, after everything settles,” he said.
Which, Dcn. Ferguson said, should work better anyway.
“This year we would be dealing with only being able to have a limited number of people and limited in the activities we could do,” Dcn. Ferguson said. “Once this COVID situation passes we really want to open the celebration up to everyone who has been part of St. Francis and the Eastland community.”